Michigan Grayling Only a Memory
"You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," sang Joni Mitchell, a folksinger from the 1960s. This is an especially appropriate sentiment regarding the sad-but-true story of the grayling. Once a native fish species in Michigan, these fish now reside on the list of Michigan's extirpated species.
Michigan's grayling were described as being especially lovely fish. Slate blue in color, they sported a particularly distinctive and graceful sail-like dorsal fin. In the 19th century, northern Michigan's streams literally teemed with them and lore has it that anglers from that time could sometimes catch three fish with one cast. Early historical accounts tell of grayling that "lay like cordwood in the AuSable." With our state as their only Midwestern home, Michigan grayling were descendants of fish that found a niche and thrived in our state's waters after the glaciers of the Ice Age receded.
Grayling were closely linked with the north woods and the image of beauty and romance attached to Michigan's then-untamed wilds, correctly associating them with unspoiled wilderness. Sadly, Michigan's native grayling population died off more than a half-century ago. The last specimens were taken in the 1930s as part of a last-ditch effort to use human intervention to rescue the fish and keep it swimming our state's waters.
While some argue Michigan's grayling population was doomed anyway, the most evident factor in the species' disappearance was the cutting of Michigan's vast virgin forest in the 1800s. The wholesale harvest of trees brought with it logjams in the streams, as the wood was sent to mills for processing. The logjams scoured the streams and all but destroyed grayling spawning areas. Cutting the trees down also caused serious silting problems that literally choked the streams in which the grayling lived. Those streams, lacking the canopy of shade the bank-side trees once provided, soon became unsuitably warm for the grayling. The delicate balance of nature tipped and the little grayling, unable to adapt to the large-scale changes facing it, began to disappear.
Another factor which contributed to the grayling's demise was the introduction of non-native trout species to Michigan's waters. The non-aggressive grayling just couldn't compete with fish such as the European brown trout and rainbow trout. Serious over fishing also contributed to the grayling's fall. Civil War-era accounts tell of people harvesting grayling by the basketfuls and hauling them home by the wagonload. There were no established take limits and catch and release was practically unheard of.
Happily, not all of North America's grayling have suffered the same fate as Michigan's population. These sleek fish can still be found in small pockets of the western United States and up in Alaska. They actually thrive in the waters of Canada's western provinces. In fact, a number of attempts have been made to re-establish the grayling in Michigan using fish from these other populations. The most recent attempt was in the 1980s, although a proposed initiative was announced in 2016.
Anglers: Chances are very remote that you will ever catch a grayling in Michigan, but if you do, you must return it to the water immediately!
Some graphics courtesy of Joseph R. Tomelleri and copyrighted.